Guest Post: Insane Clown Premise

NOTE: This is a guest post by a friend of The Blogger. There will most likely be more of these, probably on the subject of horror. Think of them as a nice lead-in to the annual Spooktober tradition.

Quite some time ago I attempted to read Stephen King’s IT while working at one of those jobs that are so boring they should by all rights be illegal. The book proved to be a good choice; at this stage in my development as a reader I wasn’t yet tired of King’s fondness for stuffing massive amounts of character backstory into all of his novels, so I had a perfectly fine time reading about the inhabitants of Derry, Maine (of course) in their child and adult forms even before the evil clown showed up.

But then the clown did show up, and…uh.

Listen, I don’t actually find King’s work to be all that scary. Some of it can be pretty horrifying in a way that sticks with you - see for example ‘Survivor Type’, a short story of his about a surgeon who gets stranded on a tiny desert island and is forced to amputate pieces of his own body for sustenance. It’s not even just the violence; King can occasionally plumb the depths of human despair in a way that gets under your skin and stays there for a few days afterwards. But his stuff just isn’t very scary most of the time.

It doesn’t help that he has a tendency to explain away a lot of the mystery behind his own premise. If I remember correctly, one of our first encounters with the titular It in the book is when some local dipshits violently assault a stereotypical gay couple. (More on that in a second.) One of the men either falls or is pushed off a bridge, where he is promptly picked up and eaten by a clown amid a flotilla of red balloons.

The way this is conveyed second-hand to our viewpoint character for the scene (a local policeman) is fairly chilling. How would you respond if someone told you they had witnessed their partner being mauled by a fanged clown? Even the image of the balloons inexplicably floating under the bridge is fairly unsettling. Good stuff, Stephen.

Then it all goes to shit. Over the course of the story we see too much of It, and learn too much about the mechanics of how it operates, for it to stay genuinely scary. Eventually we find out it’s actually some kind of giant spider that just takes the form of a clown for shits and giggles.

Actually wait, it’s not even just a spider. I looked at the Wikipedia page to make sure I hadn’t forgotten the entire plot and discovered this:

Meanwhile, Bill discovers the "Ritual of Chüd", allowing him to enter the Macroverse to confront It and discover It's true form; a mass of destructive orange lights referred to as the "Deadlights"

What the fuck? I read that entire book and I had absolutely no memory of any of this. Nor, looking back on it now, does any of that seem remotely important to telling the story that the book is actually concerned with, which is the idea that a place can be essentially cursed by a supernatural entity that not only eats children, but also gives rise to the everyday evils we’re fall familiar with: racism, homophobia, abuse, neglect. That’s the actual story here, not something called the ‘Ritual of Chüd’.

Anyway, this is all a long-winded way of leading into my argument that the movie has the exact same problems as the book only they’re more obvious because they all get crammed into just over two hours of runtime instead of a hundreds-of-pages-long novel.

Exhibit A: the clown himself. Here’s what Pennywise looks like in the movie.

I understand that opinion is fairly divided on Pennywise’s appearance in this. Some people like the makeup and buck teeth, while others preferred the slightly more understated appearance of Tim Curry’s Pennywise in the old miniseries. (Here’s an excerpt from that for reference.) Personally I think the new Pennywise design looks fine in theory, but in context he’s too obviously malevolent to really work as a creature that supposedly functions by luring in children before turning monstrous at the last second. I mean, look at that guy. Would you stick around if you bumped into him at night? (This is borne out by the fact that the kids in the movie almost universally freak out upon first seeing him, their reaction a mixture of incredulous ‘What the fuck?” and outright terror.)

The real issue, though, is everything that happens around Pennywise and the frequency of his appearances. People tend to forget that It, in all its incarnations, isn’t a one clown show. It (the creature) appears in multiple guises, some of which are more like hallucinations than singular monstrous entities. Take, for example, this wonderfully unsettling apparition that spooks young Stanley Uris early in the film:

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That’s not bad! Over the course of the opening half hour or so all of the main characters witness It in various guises related to their greatest fear. The problem is that there are seven main characters and all of them need to be aware of the creature’s existence for plot reasons, which means that the opening act of the film gives the impression that Derry is a giant haunted house attraction where you’re liable to see skeletons leaping out of alleyways on the way to work every morning.

Most of these encounters end with Pennywise himself making some kind of appearance, and boy do they get old fast. He cavorts and cackles and generally acts like you’d expect an evil clown to act, but by the time I was halfway through the film I had started to get tired of him popping out from behind things and screaming. Pennywise can survive repeated sightings with his mystique intact if they’re spaced out appropriately, but in the film it feels like he’s showing up every ten minutes. Imagine if we saw this much of the Babadook in his movie; you’d have plenty of time to realise that the creature design is, well, kind of goofy.

The overabundnce of Clown Scenes might also be covering for the fact that the movie’s actual plot is surprisingly slight. The novel covers two timelines: one in which the characters first encounter It as children and one where they return to Derry to face the creature again after it reawakens from its hibernation. This movie only covers the childhood section, which makes for a more cohesive standalone film but also means that surprisingly little happens outside of the clown attacks.

Something I found particularly disappointing is that the movie doesn’t really explore the idea that an indirect effect of It’s presence is a surplus of cruelty among Derry’s population. Almost all of the adults we see the kids interact with are at least borderline abusive in some way (and several of them go way beyond just borderline), but the concept is never really dealt with. Maybe that’s something the filmmakers are going to pick up in the sequel, when the characters return to Derry as adults and realise that their fellow citizens were the true evil clowns all along.

Which brings me to that stereotypical gay couple from the book. Stephen King’s track record with portraying characters who aren’t straight white dudes is…patchy, let’s say. I genuinely think he means well most of the time, but he tends to write gay people or people of colour as if he eavesdropped on someone’s conversation at a restaurant and then based his characters entirely around that second-hand experience.

One of the kids in the group is black and seems to be generally ostracised by his peers. The one antagonistic bully who has it out for him in particular seems to hate him for no real reason, but the same character is also shown to have an almost sociopathic sense of misanthropy. Is any of this animosity motivated by racism? Is Derry in general hostile to people who aren’t white? The idea that the adults of the town have developed a cruel or uncaring streak from It’s presence would seem to suggest that they should have a generous helping of the prejudices of the day (the movie is set in the 80’s), but we’re not given any particular sense of how their hostility manifests itself except in highly specific situations involving the main characters.

I’m curious to see how the next movie handles aspects of the story like this. Is it going to start with the assault and then clown-murder of that gay guy from the book? Are we going to get a sense, as we do in the book, that the residents of Derry either barely tolerate the presence of its small gay population or are outright hostile to it? The second movie will presumably be set either in or close to the modern day, giving the filmmakers license to avoid depicting any kind of prejudice by engaging in the liberal Hollywood fantasy that all such prejudice has ceased to exist. I have a depressing feeling that they’ll take this option, either deliberately or by omission, thereby missing the opportunity to move It: Chapter Two into the burgeoning canon of socially conscious horror films in the vein of Get Out or It Follows.

So, is It worth your time then? An awful lot of people clearly think it was, and I can see why. It’s slickly produced in a way that many mainstream horror films haven’t been until recently and some of the set pieces are admittedly pretty well-made. A scene with a misbehaving projector is particularly effective (it featured heavily in the trailers), as is one early scene set in a library where a character encounters a very strange book chronicling some of the more gruesome moments from Derry’s history.

As a whole, though, the movie feels more in line with recent Hollywood fare like The Conjuring - competently made, but with a shallow understanding of how best to scare its audience and an over-reliance on loud noses and jump scares. Watch it for the characters (the child actors are all great) rather than the clown and you’ll have a decent enough time.